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Red Sox free agent targets: Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox a match made in a mediocre market

The Kung-Fu Panda represents one of the more polarizing free agents in recent years.

Ezra Shaw

Pablo Sandoval is an accomplished postseason performer and, on-paper, a solid regular season performer. In a thin free-agent class, he represents one of the top offensive threats on the market. Sandoval, coming off a World Series, is looking to cash in and will go to whichever team presents him the best deal, according to a source.

While Sandoval's representatives will meet with the Blue Jays, White Sox, Giants and Red Sox at the upcoming General Manager meetings, no teams have presented the third baseman with an offer yet. Sandoval is going to demand quite a hefty contract (reports have him asking for a six-year deal), but teams will likely be hesitant to offer more than four. Sandoval does not have a preference between length of contract and average annual value according to those familiar with the third baseman's thinking.

The peripheral fit between the Red Sox and Sandoval, at least on paper, appears to be perfect. The team, struggling to find a long-term answer at third base highlighted by the inconsistencies of Will Middlebrooks, would like to find a player to slot in for the foreseeable future. Garin Cecchini will also not be ready to start at the major league level for the start of the season.

Sandoval does bring a lot to the table as a player. Throughout his seven years in the majors, Sandoval has been a solid on-base threat, with his lowest OBP coming in 2010 at .323 alongside a .346 mark for his career. His power numbers are, likewise, solid if not prolific. At only 28-years-old, Sandoval is the unusual free agent that will give any prospective team the majority of the prime of his career.

Sandoval's postseason track record is superlative. In his career, Sandoval has hit .344/.389/.545 with six home runs, 20 RBIs and 13 doubles in 167 postseason plate appearances. With the exception of his first postseason, when he was benched in favor of Juan Uribe in the San Francisco Giants' first championship in 2010, Sandoval has elevated his level of play when the time matters. Those who have followed David Ortiz' career know the value of having a player consistently putting out monumental postseasons.

At the plate, Sandoval has a Vladimir Guerrero-esque ability to hit balls outside of the strike zone. He, however, ranked last in all of baseball with a 48.1 percent O-Swing percentage, which measures the percentage of pitches one swings at outside the strike zone. Sandoval ranked 15th in all of baseball at making contact at pitches outside of the strike zone, trailing the likes of Jose Altuve and Dustin Pedroia. In 2014, Sandoval hit .276 on batted balls outside of the strike zone with six home runs.

While this is consistent with Sandoval's output throughout his career, it's a mark that can be hard to sustain, especially for a player with Sandoval's body type. As FanGraphs looked at with Prince Fielder just a couple of years ago, heavier players generally peak a few years earlier than those of average weight. One notable difference with Fielder, however, is that he was never a very good fielder. Defensive statistics UZR and DRS both considered Sandoval an above-average defender at the hot corner last season, much improved from earlier in his career.

Photo Credit: Kyle Terada

The venerable Alex Speier wrote on about the historical precedent for five-year deals for those of Sandoval's stature (listed at 5-foot-11 and 245, but that 245 pounds is about as accurate as my claim that I'm the "Asian Ryan Gosling"). While the sample size is relatively small, there are some encouraging signs that a player can sustain that type of production for half a decade.

So yes, there are concerns about Sandoval's weight and the subsequent he will receive on his contract. It, however, is important to consider the inflation of contracts and how much a player will cost relative to the rest of baseball at the end of the deal. For perspective, in 2009, there were four players in baseball with a salary greater than $20 million: Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter and Mark Texeira. Fast forward five years later to 2014 and that number more than quintupled to 21 players. In a short amount of time, a number that once represented a salary range for a few, elite players in baseball has been opened up to a much larger, less prestigious group. One can only imagine in five years that contracts that average $30 million annually will become more and more commonplace.

There is nearly a 100 percent guarantee that Sandoval will not be worth what he is being paid at the end of his contract (few players that sign deals longer than five years are the same player by the end of their deals). Given the trend towards larger and larger contracts in baseball, Sandoval's deal has a decent chance of not being a super-albatross in the vein of, say, Carl Crawford, at the end of a five-year deal, when he will be 32-years-old.

Should Sandoval's defense diminish, the space of designated hitter will likely be opened when David Ortiz finally decides to hang up the spikes. Sandoval, who has also played catcher and first base in his career, could also slide across the diamond should the need arise or the team feel that Cecchini could start at the start of the 2016 season, although Sandoval's bat likely projects less favorably at first base.

Sandoval has been among the better third baseman offensively, ranking 11th with a 111 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus, which measures a player's offense against the league average after factoring in park effects). In 2013, Sandoval ranked seventh in baseball in wRC+ with 116. In 2012, Sandoval, not among qualified third baseman due to his 108 games played, posted 118 wRC+. With the exception of his 2009 and 2011 seasons (where he posted 146 and 149 wRC+), Sandoval's consistent wRC+ numbers suggest that the notion that he has already started his decline offensively is overblown.

Other third basemen on the market include the 30-year-old Chase Headley, who has a career wRC+ of 114, and Hanley Ramirez, who has a career wRC+ of 133 but reportedly has maturity issues and has struggled to stay healthy in recent years. Sandoval represents a younger option to both players and someone who has a track record of postseason success.

Is Sandoval a perfect player? Of course not. Bluntly, he is not a player that deserves to be paid in "superstar" territory given his career which, while very good, is not outstanding. He, however, does represent a player who has been consistent and relatively healthy (more than 117 games played in four of six full major league seasons). Sandoval, by all reports, is a hard-working player who has demonstrated strong leadership in the clubhouse. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts would also be receptive to being a mentee to a player such as Sandoval, according to someone close to the shortstop's thinking.

While you can't ignore the potential volatility of a player of Sandoval's stature, it's hard to look past the consistent production Sandoval has brought year-after-year both at the plate and in the field. Sandoval's off-field presence and influence cannot be discounted as well. While the splits are dramatic between Sandoval's ability to hit righties and lefties, Sandoval does bring another left-handed bat to a lineup that is currently slightly right-hand heavy.

Pablo Sandoval isn't a perfect player. He has his flaws (although Meghan Trainor does remind us daily on Top-40 radio that it is, indeed, all about that bass), but Sandoval represents the best solution for the Red Sox, considering both the short and long term ramifications. Unless someone of the likes Josh Donaldson magically appears on the trade market for a reasonable price (Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson seem like a reasonable starting point), the Red Sox should allocate significant attention towards signing Sandoval.